Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 926

The Corsican Brothers was probably written alongside or between the two novels that established Alexandre Dumas’s reputation and transformed the fortunes of French popular fiction. These two novels, Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844; The Three Musketeers, 1846) and Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844-1845; The Count of Monte-Cristo, 1846), first ran as serials in daily newspapers, in direct opposition to Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1842-1843; The Mysteries of Paris, 1843) and The Wandering Jew. Dumas’s two exceedingly long novels also set the pattern for his own career and his future wealth. Their literary method also established a pattern that would dominate French popular fiction for the next half century.

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At the time of writing The Corsican Brothers, Dumas had been attempting to establish himself in the more respectable arena of the theater and had imagined his endeavors in prose fiction as more akin to those of more upmarket writers; The Corsican Brothers explicitly acknowledges its influential debt to the work of its dedicatee, Prosper Mérimée, whose novella Colomba (1840; English translation, 1853) had helped romanticize Corsica.

Mérimée was by no means reluctant to incorporate melodramatic and supernatural elements into his own work; his other famous novella, Carmen (1845; revised, 1847; English translation, 1878), is unashamedly melodramatic, and La Vénus d’Ille (1837; The Venus of Ille, 1903) is one of the classics of French supernatural fiction, but he was careful to temper them with other literary qualities. Dumas, by contrast, was a writer whose success was always closely linked to excess, and The Corsican Brothers is no exception in that respect, even though it was probably intended to be excessive. At the time this novel was written, it was not exceptional to adopt the novella form, which Dumas had tried several times before. However, his future output was, inevitably, dominated by long serials improvised as he went along on a daily basis, which required a very different kind of discipline; he only returned to the shorter format on rare occasions.

The central challenge of serial fiction, which is at its most exaggerated in serials produced for daily newspapers, is to keep the reader hooked through long narrative distances by maintaining a relentless suspense. Novellas, by contrast, have a much more definite shape; although their narrative method is similar to that of the novel in terms of scenic representation, they proceed with inexorable logic to a definite conclusion, which may (and hopefully will) seem surprising as well as inevitable and apt. Although The Corsican Brothers covers much narrative ground at a hectic pace—always one of Dumas’s great assets, as befits a writer who composed his work at a similarly hectic pace—it does so with the same deadly accuracy of character Lucien’s marksmanship and sense of honor, never losing its tight focus. It is a story obsessed with the relentlessness of fate, pretending to mirror the way of the world while actually mirroring, clearly and accurately, the principal respect in which the world within the text differs from the real world.

The period in which The Corsican Brothers was written was something of an interim in the history of supernatural fiction. German and English gothic novels had been very popular in France in the early years of the nineteenth century, and had spawned native imitations in the form of the roman noir, but their apparatus of ghosts, monsters, and curses had been subjected to such heavy usage that it seemed worn out, more appropriate for parody than continuation. Dumas loved this sort of fiction, and he continually tried to import gothic motifs into his work. His editors, though, had become wary of it, and it was squeezed out of his serials—but in his novellas, where he did not have to be so concerned about pleasing all the people all the time (or, more accurately, not offending anyone at any time), he felt free to give his idiosyncracies freer rein. It is in this format that he wrote his best supernatural fiction, The Corsican Brothers as well as Les Meneurs de loups (1857; The Wolf Leader, 1904) and others.

The central motif of The Corsican Brothers—the supposed supernatural affinity existing between identical twins—was derived from folklore and would have been dramatized in fiction many times over even without the novella’s example, but Dumas provides it with a dramatic frame that adds a useful narrative muscularity, which makes the story influential in its own right. He also adds an additional layer of complexity, which elevates his version to a higher literary level than crudely straightforward developments of the motif, in linking the carefully subverted mirror-imaging of the twins to the perverse mirror-imaging of the adversaries in long-enduring vendettas, balancing sympathy and antipathy in oddly similar ways.

Identical twins were a very rare phenomenon in Dumas’s day—the most famous pair in nineteenth century France made a career out of exhibiting themselves on stage and in fairgrounds—and Dumas could not have had the opportunity to observe the now-commonplace phenomenon by which some identical twins deliberately differentiate themselves by cultivating contrasting abilities and interests. So, his characterization of Lucien and Louis displays unusual psychological insight, adding a further dimension to the story’s interesting attributes and helping to secure its status as one of the landmarks of French supernatural fiction.

An English-language play by Dion Boucicault, an adaptation of Dumas’s novel, premiered in 1852 and went on to become one of the standard pieces of Victorian theater. The play attracted great actors, such as Henry Irving, who rejoiced in the opportunity to play two parts.

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